NOTT - SKETCHES IN PRISON CAMPS
X I .
E X C H A N G E .
The work upon the tunnel was interrupted for a day by an event, which I think must be without a parallel in any other prison-camp. At the breaking out of the rebellion, Miss Mollie Moore was a school girl of sixteen. After Galveston was re-taken by the Confederates, the “Houston Telegraph” was adorned with several heroic ballads, written by the young lady, whom the editor sometimes called “our pet,” and some-times the “unrivalled star of Texan literature.” The 42 nd Massachusetts had been quartered in a warehouse on the wharf of Galveston, and had passed the night previous to their capture in fighting, all of which the ballad described thus:
"Beneath the Texan groves the haughty foemen slept."
The literary taste of a simple, half-educated people is never very high, and it is not surprising that this childish composition so nicely equalled the taste of its readers, as to be deemed a marvel of genius, and actually to be published with General Magruder's official report. Miss Mollie became the literary genius of Texas, and her effusions were poured forth through the “Houston Telegraph” and the “Tyler Reporter” and the “Crocket Quid Nunc" in most lavish streams. This strong incentive to write, and these ready opportunities to publish were not altogether abused by the young authoress, who rapidly improved. Judging her by the other poems that adorned those papers, she indeed appeared to be the "unrivalled star of Texan literature." I am fortunate in being able to introduce her to northern readers by an extract from:
A N I N V I T A T I O N .
TO MISS LIZZIE IRVINE, OF TYLER.
The autumn sunset's fairy dyes
Have faded from the bonding skies
Grey twilight (she with down-cast eyes
And trailing garments) passeth by;
And thro' the cloud-rifts shine the stars,
As sunbeams burst thro' prison bars;
And on the soft wind, faintly heard,
The warbling of some twilight bird
Comes floating sylph-like, clad with power,
To whisper, "This is love's own hour!"
* * * * *
'Tis autumn---and with summer fell
The climbing vines of Sylvan Dell;
Our flowers too withered when the pall
Crept over summer; and the fall
Of dry leaves, eddying thro' the air,
Has left the tall trees brown and bare:
And more--at winter's high behest,
The crisp fern waves a tatered crest
Above the stream, whose crystal pride
The river-screen was wont to hide.
But think not all are faithless! no,
Not all doth Summer yield her foe,
Tho' Winter grasp each flower and vine-
He cannot claim the fadeless pine,
And high upon our rough hill-steeps,
His watch the crested holly keeps.
Ah would that Love could thus defy
The storms that sweep our wintry sky !
* * * * *
Come wander with me where the hill
Slopes downward to the waters still,
Where bright among the curling vines
The sevres berry scarlet shines.
And on yon brown hill's bosky side,
Where flames the sumach's crimson pride,
The steeps and tangled thickets glow
With rude persimmons golden show;
And down the dell, where daylight's beams
Make golden pathways by the streams,
Where whispering winds are never mute,
The hawthorn hangs her ebon fruit.
Come wander with me! near the spring
The partridge whirs on mottled wing,
And where the oozy marshes rest
The wild duck heaves her royal breast,
And when the winds are faintly stirred,
The "sound of dropping nuts" is heard.
* * * * *
Como thou! a bright and golden bar
Comes quivering from yon yellow star,
And sweeps away as spirits flee,
To bear my vesper thought to thee.
Come thou! a zephyr sweet and mild
Comes whispering where the starlight smiled,
And floats as Love's own spirits flee,
To bear my vesper wish to thee.
Come thou! a spirit wanders by,
With gentle brow and tender eye,
And flies as Love alone can flee,
To hear my vesper prayer to thee.
Come thou! and when the hour as now
Hangs heavy shades on day's cold brow,
When stars are glowing in the skies,
The blessed stars, Love's radiant eyes,
When faintly on the breeze is heard,
The hymning of some brooding bird—
Ah how the twilight hour will be
Love's dearest hour to thee and me !
It seems impossible that a young lady able to write such correct and pleasing verse could be brought down by a bad subject to the following inflated nonsense, which is a stanza from a terrific piece called "The Black Flag," " Dedicated to the Southern Army :"
* * * * *
Let our flag kiss the breeze! let it float o'er the field,
Not a heart will grow faint, not a bay'net will yield;
Let the foe drive his hosts o'er our land and the sea,
To the banquet of Death prepared by the free!
Unfurl our dark banner! be steady each breast,
Till the red light of Victory hath lit on its crest!
Let it hang as the vulture hangs, heavy with woe,
O'er the field where our blades drink the blood of the foe!
Chorus —It shall never he lowered, the black flag we bear, It shall never, never, never, no never, etc., etc., etc.
There was a young lieutenant among the prisoners given to collecting all sorts of scraps and curiosities, and so he addressed a note to Miss Mollie, begging for her autograph and copies of any poems she might be able to spare. Within a reasonable time there came a copy of the "Invitation" and an autograph of the "Black Flag," and a reproachful letter to Lieutenant Pearson. There was also a letter to Colonel Allen, not intended for Yankee reading. It expressed a little repentance for writing so cruelly to an unfortunate prisoner—avowed a wish to treat even invaders with politeness, and wound up with the Eve-like conclusion, "But I could not resist the temptation. Yours truly, MOLLIE E. MOORE."
One or two other causes at the same time combined to induce Miss Mollie to visit Camp Ford, and one lucky morning Mrs. Allen escorted her in. She was one of those girls that men are a little afraid of; and that other girls do not like; she had a slender figure, a thin face, light hair, light blue, dreamy eyes, and she was accompanied by the object of the "Invitation." There was not much of the poetess in her bearing, for she was very neatly dressed, a ready talker, and quite sharp at repartee. Yet when Colonel Burrill was presented to her as one of the "haughty foemen," she colored, and showed a little pretty embarrassment. The friend was her exact opposite, with dark hair, dark eyes, very shy and silent and reserved, and much the prettiest Texan it was ever my luck to see.
About the same time a second notable incident occurred, being no less than a literary contest between prisoners and the outside world. One of our number had received some attention from the Houston editor, in return for which he sent him a few verses, entitled, "Pax Vobiscum." These lines so exactly accorded with the yearning for peace, that they awakened great interest, and after a while were re-published, with the editorial avowal that they were written by a Yankee prisoner. Another literary lady, middle-aged, married, and rather stout (so I was informed), but who called herself by the infantile name of "Maggie of Marshall," there-upon came out with a poem, addressed to "the noble prisoner," in which she styled him, "The northern by birth but the southern in soul," and urged him to come straight over and light on their side. The "noble prisoner" had no earthly intention of deserting, so he wrote a second poem for the "Tyler Reporter," in which he defined his position. When Mistress Maggie of Marshall found that her blandishments were all thrown away, she became deeply indignant, and immediately wrote her second poem for the "Reporter," wherein the "noble prisoner" was turned into a puritan and a murderer and a son of Cain, and finally turned adrift with the contemptuous pity:
"Behold this Ephraim to his idols joined—
Let him alone."
I cannot speak very explicitly of our last three months. In telling this story, I have tried to picture only the better side of everything, and to make it imprisonment with the unpleasant parts left out. The story is "the truth," but not "the whole truth," and does not deny or conflict with the narratives of others. A sense of honor forbids that the better actions of our late enemies should be hidden, or that the good and the bad should be condemned together. Yet I may as well add here, for the benefit of certain persons, that the respect yielded to a southern soldier standing by his State, and heroically fighting for that false belief (in which he was bred), does not extend to those cowards who, "sympathizing with the South," have skulked through the war behind the generous protection of the United States.
The Red River prisoners arrived, and were followed by numbers from Arkansas. Our soldiers and sailors of Camp Groce, who, four months before, left us hopefully sure of their release, came back — I need not say how sad and disappointed. Our number swelled from a hundred officers, to forty-seven hundred and twenty-five, officers, soldiers and sailors. Then followed a quarter of a year of loathsome wretchedness, beside which, the squallor and vice of a great city's worst haunts appeared — and still appear, too bright and pure to yield a comparison.
The healthy character of our camp changed in a single week. Disease and death followed each other quickly in. The friendless sick lay shelterless on the ground around us, the sun scorching and blighting them by day, and the cold Texan night-wind smiting them by night. We walked over the dying and the dead, when-ever we moved, and saw and heard their miseries through every hour. Beside the gate stood a pile of coffins, reminding all who went out and came in, of their probable impending fate. The vice and lawlessness that live in the vile haunts of cities sprang up and flourished here. The Confederate troops (idle after their victories on the Red River) came back to scour the country for deserters; and our unhappy conscript friends whispered that escape was hopeless now, and sought to comfort us by lamenting that no dim prospect of exchange cheered them. Our kind friends, the Allens, had gone, and the English Lieutenant-Colonel, who commanded, treated a few with surly civility, but the great mass with brutal cruelty. The horrors of these great prison-camps are not yet told — will never be.
It is darkest before the dawn. We sat at dinner, one day, and a sailor, whose nick-name was Wax, came to the door, and said to his Captain, "The paroling officer, sir, who was here three months ago, has come back, and the guards say, there are some of us to be exchanged." The Captain thanked the man, and we went on with our dinner." I suppose, some one remarked, "that if exchange ever does come, the news will come through Wax;" and then we dropped the subject; for a hundred times just such stories had been told, and a hundred times they had proved false. Captain Dillingham finished his dinner, and said he would go out and see that officer; perhaps the fellow had brought us some letters. The Captain came hack in a few minutes, and said, as cheerily as though he were telling good news for himself, "you are to go, and I am to stay --- none of us navy fellows to be exchanged." Our rose had its thorn.
Three days of anxious waiting passed, and we bade our naval friends farewell. Some of them had been tried then six months longer than we had been. The trial of all went on for seven months more. They suffered, again and again, the sorest pain that can be inflicted on prisoners of war — the sight of those marching out who were captured long subsequent to themselves, and the fear that the injustice comes from the neglect of their own government. There was thrown upon them also a strong temptation; for there were desertions, I am sorry to say, from the army. The deserters were chiefly foreign born, but not all. The first, indeed, was a young man in the 2d Rhode Island Cavalry, a native of another New England State. Yet these sailors never faltered. If men who have fought bravely in battle, and who have been faithful through suffering, ever deserved to be welcomed home with honors and ovations, then did these sailors of the "Morning Light," "Clifton," and "Sachem."
One thousand of us marched out of the crowded camp. We inhaled long breaths of the pure untainted air, yet dared not believe that this would end in exchange. It was the sixth time that some had marched over the same road, and we might well be incredulous. There was weary marching over burning sand, and the long-confined men grew weak and foot-sore, before they had marched an hour. The Confederate officers acted kindly, but the prisoners had seen chances of exchange lost by a single day's delay, and they dragged themselves forward with a rigor that would have been cruelty had it been enforced on them. The white sand glaring under their feet, and the burning sun beating down through the breathless air, made a fiery ordeal. Shoeless men, with feet seared and blistered so that the hot sand felt like coals of fire, tottered along, not faster than a mile an hour, yet moving steadily. A few wagons, pressed from the harvest-fields, were covered with the sick and dying, and thus appearing, on the fifth day, we marched through the streets of Shreveport.
Here three days of insupportable longness awaited us; for Shreveport had been the dam that had always stopped prisoners and turned them back. On the fourth morning we marched on board of the steamboats that were to carry us down the Red River; and then, when Shreveport was fairly behind us, we breathed freer, and for the first time allowed ourselves to hope. At Alexandria we were stopped and landed, and made to endure two other days of suspense, but at last we re-embarked for the point of exchange.
The mouth of Red River was the place where our flag-of-truce boat was to meet us. We reached it before sunrise, and saw again the muddy current of the Mississippi. No flag-of-truce boat was in sight. But we saw two gun-boats that sentinelled the river, and our eyes rested on the flag that streamed over their decks, and silently proclaimed to us the still sovereign power of the United States. A shot from the gun-boats bade us stop. A small boat was lowered; we saw its crew enter it, and an officer come over the side; and then it pulled toward us. The officer inquired the object of the Confederate flag-of-truce, and told us the disheartening fact that he had heard nothing of this exchange. Then followed nine hours, that seemed as though they would never move away. A crowd of prisoners stood on the upper deck, their eyes strained on the river. The morning passed, the afternoon began, and still nothing could be seen. At two o'clock, a little puff of black smoke appeared far down the Mississippi, and a murmur ran through the crowd. An hour crawled away, and a large, white steamer pushed around a headland of the river, and came rapidly up against the muddy current. The strained eyes thought they saw a white flag, but it was hard to distinguish it on the white back-ground of the boat. Suddenly the steamer turned and ran in to the bank below us — the white flag streamed out plainly in view, and the decks were covered with Confederate prisoners.
It was on the last day of thirteen months of captivity that I re-entered our lines. All that I had seen and learnt was contained in about thirty days. Could these thirty days have been brought together, they would have formed an interesting and instructive month. But beside this one were twelve other months, that were a dreary, idle waste. They formed a year that had brought no pleasure, profit or instruction. Some who entered it young, came out with broken health and shortened lives; some who had entered it in middle age, came out with grey hair, impaired memory, and the decrepitude of premature old age. It was a year that had taken much from us and given to us little in return. A year of ever-disappointed hopes, of barren promises, of a blank and dreary retrospect. Contemplating it, we might almost reverse the meaning of our gently-chiding poet:
"Rich gift of God! A year of time!
What pomp of rise and shut of day
What hues wherewith our northern clime
Makes autumn's drooping woodlands gay—
What airs outblown from ferny dells,
And clover bloom, and sweet-brier smells
What songs of brooks and birds—what fruits and flowers,
Green woods and moon lit snows have in its round been ours."
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